The Farmers Market
I don’t really recall my first visit to a farmers’ market. It was probably a local outdoor summer market when we lived in Wonder Lake, Illinois. (Yes, the town is actually called Wonder Lake, and there really is a lake.) In those days McHenry County was one of those postcard-esque pastoral places oozing with charm, farms, lakes, streams, and people (like us) who worked in Chicago but wanted to enjoy living in the country. Our home was an 800 square foot A-frame situated between the Lake and Nippersink Creek. We lived there for two years, and thought about whether we’d find something as charming in Los Angeles. (A&M Records was moving me to California to work out of the ‘home office’ in Hollywood. But that’s another story.)
In a way, we were hearing the distant voice of newspaperman Horace Greely who encouraged one and all to “Go west.” In part his thoughts were wrapped up in an idea of what to do with an abundance of veterans of the American Civil War, finding themselves all too often displaced. The publisher of the New York Tribune may have had another motivation for encouraging westward movement: “Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”
With our own move west, we were ready to see what change would bring but were. nevertheless apprehensive. Once we began looking for a home, we learned that Greely was at least part right. Housing prices were high and headed higher still. The food wasn’t bad but there was plenty of dust in the Santa Clarita Valley, about an hour north of my office in Hollywood. As for the morals, most of my extended family who today live in the midwest would probably chime in that Hollywood's morals are still deplorable.
Our home purchase budget was limited as we entered the red-hot southern California real estate market of the 1970s. It was not unusual to look at a $60-70,000 tract house on Saturday, think about it for a few days, and find out five days later that the price had gone up by $2000. So we jumped in. As lovely as it was, Wonder Lake had no real claim to fame. Our new hometown, Newhall, was probably best known as the home of the William S. Hart estate, now a park. Hart was an early silent film star, making many movies and making lots of money between 1915 and 1925.
While working in Hollywood, one of my good friends from Chicago was now also in Hollywood and also working for A&M. Jayne Neches (later Neches-Simon) and I were going to have lunch, and as to “where”, she had a suggestion to make. We drove south from the A&M offices at Sunset and LaBrea to the general area of 3rd & Fairfax, the location of L.A.'s Farmers Market. Ignore Amish men and women selling produce in Pennsylvania in the 19th century, or any other example of an “original farmers market”. In Hollywood, history is created anew all of the time. And the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax was (and is still) touted as the “original”. When we got there, Jayne looked for a parking space on Fairfax and then opted to have the valet park her car. Yes. Although there was street parking in the area, Jayne found the one (?) lot that had valet parking. As Randy Newman sang, “I Love L. A.” Today that Farmers Market has somewhere close to 100 merchants, offering cell phones, stickers, and keys, and restaurants ranging from Moishe's Restaurant to Mr. Marcel Pain Vin Et Fromage. It’s like the Galleria Mall from Sherman Oaks was picked up, moved, and re-branded as a farmers market.
Back on earth in Mendocino County, we have numerous farmers markets, and guess what? Almost every stand—produce, bread, coffee, meats, plants, jams, and more—is owned by a local person selling local food or local products. Go figure.
Last week's Saturday market was one of those fantastic coastal days. (By the way, we get a lot of those days here on the Mendocino coast, but don’t tell anyone.) The sun was shining, and all of the usual people had set up there tables. Donna had her jams, vegetables, and seaweed products; Allan was offering grapes, green apples, leafy goodies, and micro-greens while Astrid was selling tarts and waffles cooked fresh at the market. A young couple (sorry, didn’t get their names) were selling fresh bread, and I do mean fresh. The plant lady was there selling house and small garden plants perfect for our climate, which means they don’t require an excessive amount of water. Tom was selling his Little Green Bean coffee. A musician was playing his battery-powered electric keyboard, the handmade jewelry stand was open. Wing and Zoe of Westside Farm had set up their tables (left), and Abby and Sammy from Oz Farm (below) were getting their goods ready. Both Westside and Oz displayed their beautiful food as if there was a competition to see who could make their produce for a photo shoot. On this Saturday, it was a tie.
The market officially opens at 9:30am, and we reluctantly recognize the official start time. That doesn't hold back the 'drool factor' as the regular shoppers begin to gather near the tables, all the while voicing varying levels of desire. “I want her heirloom tomatoes." "I want those bell peppers." "Did you see those raspberries?" "The apples look amazing.” At 9:15am the early shoppers—me included—hover like sharks waiting for the right moment to strike. Then all at once, at exactly 9:30am, there’s a mild frenzy, almost always good natured. Having spent my $40 budget for the week on large garlic, fingerling potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, green beans, rainbow chard, winesap apples, basil, and Russian kale (holy shit, I actually bought kale. My mother would be so proud and also probably dumbfounded). As always I get a cup of Tom’s coffee to go. By 10:30 the second wave of sleepier shoppers show up, but the early shoppers have already headed home. We got the good stuff.
The glitz of the stores at 3rd and Fairfax belie the reality of just what constitutes a farmers market. As corporate farms continue to pump out tons of red this, green that, and yellow somethin' else, they're often just selling ‘stuff’ that may look good as in, for example, tasteless rock-hard tomatoes from Florida. Here on the coast we continue to lament the last day of the farmers market around November 1, and start counting the days until our fresh local food returns in April or May. To Allan, and Astrid, and Donna, and Abby and Sammi, and Wing, and Zoe, Tom, and everyone else, thank you.